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Battle of Flowers

Tara Moore

Excerpted from the forthcoming novel The Dovecoat

How can there be too many children? That is like saying there are too many flowers.

- Mother Teresa

The Channel Island of Jersey, 1937

I raise my arm, palm cupped like a petal, my wrist still rotating in an absurd princess wave as all around, the battle rages on. I lean right as a projectile zips over my shoulder. I duck; a shower of detritus grazes my skirt. Heaven help us, it’s like we’ve shredded the sky, the fallout raining down from the clear blue like confetti.

But then...c’est la vie! It isn’t every day a French girl gets chosen to be Battle of Flowers queen on this little English island! I laugh, sending flower petals showering from my hair, and reach to pluck one of the carnations blanketing the sideboard of the float. The crowd breaks into cheers as I join the fray and launch it from high atop my blossom-cushioned throne. Pure insanity!

The crowd for the Battle of Flowers parade is larger and more exuberant this year because it’s the coronation year for George VI and Elizabeth. Our float commemorating the event passes by bright market stands and artisan shops, doorways framed by workers waving reverently as if I am the young queen herself passing by. I am not royalty, but today, I feel close. The girl that was to be Elizabeth fainted minutes before parade time, and I was plucked from the crowd. Two women turned me this way and that. I understood enough English to piece together, “Well, her hair...little like a queen...she’ll do.” I had blessed myself for taking the time to pin up a chignon today, nodded as regally as possible, and tucked away my un-queenly truth: I am nothing more than a humble teacher-in-training from the Normandy coast here on holiday.

In any case, I have heard several languages from voices in the crowd, and as long as I keep my mouth closed, I fit the part. Feeling a bit bold in my queen costume, I smile at one particularly handsome blonde shopworker. He is standing in a doorway leaning on his broom, and he lifts both his chin and his hand in greeting as if we are old friends.

The boy that was my George gets tired of waving, hops the float, and I am left with a cadre of young girls at my ankles. They are dressed in white satin princess costumes, and the sun shines down like a spotlight, lighting the crown of each of their heads. For the first bit of the run, I watch them smile sweetly and wave. Then the incoming blossoms start coming harder and faster, and the littlest girl, the one that looks like the American movie star Shirley Temple with her cherub cheeks and spiral curls, gets pelted in the head. It makes the older ones begin to exchange sidelong glances, and the dawning expression of one girl with a broad face and bangs that fall across her eyes can be read as plainly as a book: Why, we have a whole arsenal at our disposal!

Now with demeanors wholly not princess-like, the girls begin to do what must be done. Doggedly, they begin snapping the heads off the chrysanthemums that were so carefully woven into the burlap batting, beginning the grim, sober task of dismantling their floral kingdom. They drop to their knees and hitch up their skirts to make pouches, slicing and scooping the flowers in with the blades of their forearms. I’m so inspired by their determination that I begin to bat and block strategically, halting the flowers’ trajectory so that the bright heads drop from the sky and fall softly at my feet. No one notices my accumulating ammunition except the broad-faced girl who pauses her gathering to nod with approval before using her elbow to swipe the hair from her eyes and dive back in.

There is a shearing sound. The banner is torn away from the fender, and an older matron twirls wildly, spinning round and round in the white satin like a dervish, the Jersey 1937 Battle of Flowers lettering binding her tighter and tighter until her more sober husband produces a pocket knife and cuts her free. The engine kicks down into a low hum, the driver slowing even further until we’re moving barely at a crawl. Instinctively, I pull two girls back from the edge, because a few faces from the crowd are pressing in close. Some of them snap like dogs now, their adrenaline surging with the heat of battle, baring their teeth as they grasp and tear at the last of the flowers. The hood of the truck is jutting nakedly forward; nearly all the carnations that were blanketing it are gone, leaving just an ugly tangle of stems strewn across the dull metal of the hull. I lift my elbows to my ears and try to smile, but now my eyes run a continuous sweep, left to right, left to right. Because my daisy-throne has been exposed as nothing more than two wooden crates nailed together, and my elevated position has made me a target.

A gust of wind catches the hem of my skirt just as a hand reaches up to grasp the post of the float’s safety rail. There is a flash, and I think a photographer in the crowd has snapped me as I whirl toward a young man, the auburn waves of my hair escaping the confines of its chignon. I feel it pull free, and in my mind, the captured moment is vaguely glorious. I imagine my skirt and hair framed for a moment in time, floating and fanning out like the spread wings of a bird. Eventually, gravity wins; my hair deflates back down to my shoulders, and I reach to tug my hem free. The satin slips easily from where his fingers have inadvertently pinned it, but he hoists himself higher on the rail, pressing up to one knee at the foot of my throne.

The crowd goes wild. A chant goes up, “Kiss her! Kiss her!” The young man doesn’t seem to hear. His eyes hold mine a moment before they track up and over my head, connecting to catch a perfect red rose before it can fall. He tips his head slightly, a wordless request for permission, then slides the rose behind my ear. Only then does his expression fracture into a smile. Mission completed, his foot trails the ground, ready to hop off. His lips are moving though, and I try to make out what he is saying. I lean forward, my hand cupped to my ear. “What?” Now I scream a bit desperately, “What?

But he is back on the ground, a silent, still figure in the seething crowd. The mass of bodies is swallowing him up, and he cranes his neck above their heads to catch a last glimpse of me. I’m being carried away, clouds of dust rising in my wake, a few stray petals looping and floating in the air. The safety rail has been torn, leaving nothing to hold as I stumble to the rear of the flatbed, pressing one stray little girl back toward the safety of the center, and straining to try and keep him in view. Then I can’t help but smile at his earnestness as his voice rings out one last time above the crowd. It is an intense effort to be heard, overly loud and desperately clear so that his message will reach me. I think I detect a slight accent not native to the Channel Islands. It sounds a bit German, actually, because his v comes out like an f. He enunciates every word as if the instructions for a flower tucked behind my ear are most certainly and absolutely a matter of life or death. “!”

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